On the day of Moshe Kasher’s bris, his grandfather held him in his hands and declared, “This boy will be a great rabbi, I can see into his soul.” The old man’s prophesy almost came true. One of his grandsons did grow up to become a rabbi: Moshe’s brother, David. Moshe, meanwhile, grew into a brash, fast-talking standup comedian who sports a haircut that, as he says, is just gay and Hitler-esque enough to be called “the Gitler.”
The fact that Moshe survived childhood at all is the basis for his debut book, “Kasher in the Rye: The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and Then Turned 16,” out this week from Grand Central Publishing.
The book is the enactment of a Jewish mother’s worst nightmare. The author describes a childhood in which he puts out a cigarette on his arm (it later becomes infected); drops acid; sells acid to a seventh grader who then has a heart attack; traipses through subway tunnels; sprays graffiti on various surfaces; steals liquor from the supermarket; smokes weed; snorts pills; drinks “Everclear margaritas”; and breaks into his own house while his mother is away to take psychedelic mushrooms and steal her car. As Kasher tells it, he is a prodigy of misconduct. By age 4 he is assigned his first therapist, and is checked into drug rehab by age 13.
The grandfather’s “This boy will be a great rabbi” moment arrives as a flashback during a tense confrontation between Moshe and his father, who has just received a phone bill for $1,500 worth of calls to phone sex operators in Antigua and the Philippines. Unlike most of the crises in the book, this one is resolved rather easily. “I spent every penny of my bar mitzvah money on phone sex,” Kasher writes. Problem solved.
“Kasher in the Rye” is the latest chapter a growing career for the Los Angeles-based comedian. In 2009, he released a standup album, “Everyone You Know is Going to Die, and Then You Are!” which earned him the iTunes “Best New Comedian” honor for that year. These days, he has a weekly podcast called “The Champs” that he hosts with two friends, Neal Brennan and DJ Douggpound. He has appeared on various TV shows, including Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. And, later this month, he will embark on a reading/stand-up tour across North America, including a stop at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival on April 15.
When I spoke with him over the phone Kasher said that, unlike like most books by stand-up comedians, “Kasher in the Rye” isn’t simply promotional material for his comedy career. “It was my one opportunity to tell this very strange story,” he said. “You’re being distracted by the comedy and then all of a sudden you find yourself in a really dark, small place.”
It is this dark, small place that he is eager to share with his mother. Because she is deaf (readers learn more about this in the book), she usually sees his stand-up routines filtered through closed-captioning or sign language interpreters. The experience just isn’t the same, he says. But a book has no filter. “She reads the book just like everybody else reads the book,” he said. “Which, to me, is one of the neatest things about the whole thing.”